Monday, November 28, 2005

Good guys and bad guys

Like most folks, my concept of right and wrong was established at an early age. While I know the world isn't black and white, I still believe that it's easy to tell between right and wrong -- to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

My concept of how the good guys act was influenced by comic books and television. In comic books, there were Superman and Batman, defending the little guys from the evildoers. On television, it was Superman again (the George Reeves version) and the Lone Ranger, again doing their best to look out for the little guy. What I learned from these characters was that good guys never hit (or shot, in the case of the Lone Ranger) first. They waited for the bad guys to make their move, then they reacted. And they never killed, only wounded. (The Lone Ranger shot a lot of bad guys in the hand.) The good guys didn't think much of big business or big government, they were there to protect the rights of the individual. They didn't beat up innocent people or torture them or behave in any way less than Boy Scoutish. Heck, they didn't even swear.

My concept of how the bad guys act was influenced by the times, which in my case was the Cold War. The bad guys were the Communists, and they did nasty things. The bad-guy Communists banned books and tried to control the activities and thoughts of their citizens. Their secret police spied on their citizens, and arrested them in the dead of night with no cause or warrant. The bad guys tortured people, and sent them to waste away in frozen gulags. The bad guys invaded other countries with no provocation, grinding their freedom under the boot heel of oppression.

In the world I grew up in, it was clear who the good guys and the bad guys were. The good guys were for openness and freedom , and the bad guys were for secrecy and oppression. It was the good guys' job to stop the bad guys wherever they could, but in the good guy fashion; the good guys never used the methods of the bad guys.

To my chagrin, the world today is different. Americans are supposed to be good guys, but we're acting just like bad guys. That doesn't make the real bad guys any less bad, but it does make us that much less good.

In today's world, America invades other countries without any provocation. Even if you believed all the pre-war hype about WMD (and not everyone did), there was still little or no reason to believe that Iraq was on the verge of attacking the U.S. -- or any other country, for that matter. America invaded a country that posed no immediate danger to us. Good guys don't shoot first, but that's just what we did in Iraq.

In today's world, American police can arrest anyone they want, merely by calling them a terrorist. There is no due process. After 9/11, the government locked up hundreds of innocent citizens, deprived them of legal council, and resisted all attempts to either free them or formally charge them. I'm not talking about the Guantanamo detainees; I'm talking about honest, hardworking American citizens, most of Middle Eastern descent, who were swept up in the net of fear. Good guys don't have secret police who arrest people in the middle of the night, but that's exactly what the Bush administration did.

In today's world, American troops can take prisoners in a so-called war, spirit them away to camps in other countries, and detain them indefinitely. These prisoners, held in Guantanamo and in secret camps across the globe, are held in a kind of legal limbo. They're denied prisoner of war status, yet not charged with any domestic crime. They have no hope of release, only a dismal future in these American-run gulags. Good guys don't condemn prisoners to gulags, but that's what the American government continues to do.

In today's world, American troops and agents torture and kill their prisoners. There are no rules, except for those the administration argues to ignore. The Geneva conventions are not followed; military personnel are implicitly if not explicitly ordered to use torture as an interrogation device. Good guys don't torture and kill, but that's what we as Americans are allowing to happen in Iraq and elsewhere.

In today's world, Americans are no longer the good guys. It wasn't 9/11, but rather the Bush administration that turned the world on its head and turned Americans -- all Americans -- into bad guys. We should know right from wrong, and today we are in the wrong. For this, we have George Bush and his cadre of hardliners to thank.

Superman and the Lone Ranger would be ashamed; indeed, they would find us to be the bad guys that need protecting against. How much longer will basically decent Americans continue to support this wrongful behavior? How much longer before the architects of our moral downfall are impeached and tried as the criminals that they are?

I still believe in right and wrong, in good guys and bad guys. And I'm tired of being one of the bad guys.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Born to Run

It's hard to believe that it was thirty years ago that Bruce Springsteen released his classic Born to Run album. Not only doesn't it feel like it's been thirty years, the album doesn't sound dated at all. But that's the mark of a classic; it doesn't get older, it just gets better.

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of the album, Sony (the current owners of Columbia, the original label) has re-released the album as part of a three-disc set. The album itself is one of the discs, a remastered CD that sounds noticeably but not significantly better than the original pressing. (It's not the most impressive remaster I've ever encountered, to be honest, but it still sounds damned good.) The other two discs are DVDs, one a particularly interesting documentary of the making of the album, the other a rare, long-thought-lost Springsteen concert from October 1975.

As good as the CD is, and as interesting as the documentary is, the real gem is the concert disc; it captures the band in their first non-U.S. appearance (at Hammersmith Odeon, in London), in what is truly a legendary performance. It's here where the E Street Band really started to gel, with Miami Steve, Max Weinberg, and Roy Bittan all just recently having joined the band. Springsteen and company felt like they had something to prove to the jaded British critics (and to live up to some of the pre-concert hype), and they did. The band starts off a little tentative, but soon enough catches fire and rips the roof off the joint. When people say a performance is legendary, this is what they mean, and we're fortunate that it was captured in its entirety. I've seen many other Springsteen concerts over the years, but this one is by far the most dynamic and moving. My previous favorite concert movie was The Band's The Last Waltz, but this one goes immediately to the front of the pack.

I'm embarrassed to say that in August of 1975, when Born to Run was first released, I was totally unaware of the album and the artist, in spite of the dual newsweekly covers. I didn't get turned on to Springsteen until the 1978 release of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and then worked backwards through the catalog. (That's right, I discovered Elvis Costello before I discovered Springsteen -- a definite chronological error.) I don't know how I avoided Born to Run back in 1975, but it wasn't just me; none of my musically-inclined friends noticed it, either. Maybe I was too much of a jazz and jazz-rock snob at the time, I don't know. But it passed right by me, and I was the less for it.

In August of 1975 I was getting ready to start my senior year in high school. I had just broken up with my girlfriend of the past year (or, more accurately, she had just broken up with me), and I was more than eager to get through my final year and get on to college. My senior year was not my best year; I was bored and missed my older friends who'd graduated the year before. Yeah, I owned the joint, but I didn't care about it anymore. The place had changed, and it just wasn't as much fun. I wanted to get out and move on.

I could have done with a little Springsteen at that point in time. I definitely would have identified with "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" just as much, if not more so, than I did three years later. Springsteen painted such vivid pictures of loss and longing, it tore your heart out. His music on Born to Run was operatic, fusing the best of all that rock and roll had offered up to that point. When I listen to "Thunder Road" today, I still want to grab my Mary with her waving dress and race as fast as I can out of this town full of losers. "Jungleland" still stuns me with its stark tale of dime-store hope and despair -- "The poets down here don't write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be." Born to Run was Dylan fused with Phil Spector, with a little Roy Orbison thrown into the mix, like nothing before and nothing since.

And, as great as the album was, Springsteen's live performances were even better. Oh, what I'd give to go back and time and catch the E Street Band on that Born to Run tour. In fact, if I had a time machine, I wouldn't use it for the normal stuff, to go back and look at the dinosaurs, or see what Jesus was really like, or to try and stop JFK's assassination. No, I'd use my time machine to let me capture the legendary performances of my lifetime, and before. I'd go back to 1975 to see Springsteen and the E Street Band, and to 1964 to see the Beatles' first American tour, and to 1963 to hear Dylan at Newport, and to 1959 to catch Miles Davis at the Blue Note, and to 1956 to see a young Julie Andrews come into her own in My Fair Lady, and back even further to see Fred Astaire dancing on Broadway, and on and on and on. Some of these performances are captured on film and video, some on vinyl and CD, but it's not the same as being there. That's what I'd use my time machine for, to catch the magic.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, November 11, 2005

There was much rejoicing

The Washington Post reports today that Sony has backed off from its CD copy protection scheme -- you know, the one that installed malware on your PC, wouldn't let you copy the CD to an iPod, and limited CD-to-PC rip quality to a measly 128 Kbps. Seems Sony didn't like the bad press. Awww, I feel for them. Those rat bastards.

It's time that honest consumers stood up for their rights against these greedy fat cat record labels. The labels obviously don't care about their customers or their clients (the recording artists), they only care about the bottom line -- and only then in the short term. So maybe they cut back a teensy-weensy little bit on copying with this DRM scheme (and that's quite arguable), while in the long run they drive more and more formerly paying customers away. When you combine greed with stupidity, that's what you get.

The record labels blame music downloads and CD copying for all their woes. But study after study has failed to prove that downloads and copying affect CD sales one iota. Here's what's really happening. CDs cost too much (should a 60-minute music CD really be priced higher than a two-hour movie DVD?), and the music they're putting out sucks. It also doesn't help that the Clear Channels of the world so rule the radio waves that (1) there's very little opportunity for potential CD buyers to hear new music and (2) the market is so scattered among subgenres that there's little or no chance for a true mass market hit anymore.

So the labels are crying the blues over declining sales, and trying to make up for it by suing their customers, infecting their PCs with worms, and restricting the use of the products they sell. Yeah, that's smart business. I do not feel their pain.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Fearless predictions

I haven't commented much on political events since Harriet Miers' withdrawal, Judge Alito's nomination, and Scooter Libby's indictment. I've had enough fun just sitting back and watching the Bush administration implode.

Here's the thing -- power corrupts. And the Bushies had a lot of power, more than any administration in recent history. Is it any surprise, then, that the Bush administration is being found out as the most corrupt since Warren G. Harding? The more power these guys got, the more corrupt they became -- and the more blatantly they tried to protect that power. The whole Plame case is all about punishing their enemies, and will (as I predicted long ago) result in their eventual downfall.

That said, here are my predictions for how various events play out.

On the Alito nomination, I don't have a clue. (How's that for a prediction?) He's quite obviously a corporate lackey (much like Roberts before him) and also a bit of a conservative wingnut. But he's also an intelligent and experienced jurist with a keen legal mind, unlike the previous nominee for the post. How the Senate breaks on him depends on a lot of factors, not the least of which is how much control the White House still has over the Republican legislators. Okay, I'll go out on a limb and say it ends up 52-48 against, but I'm not very confident of the odds; it could very well go 52-48 for.

On the Plamegate front, I see this getting really interesting, and resulting in a wholesale shakeup in the West Wing. As Scooter's case moves towards open court, we'll find out more about Dick Cheney's role in all this -- that is, we'll discover (or at least have it strongly hinted) that Cheney masterminded the whole thing. It's beyond consideration that Cheney's right-hand man would have done everything he did totally on his own, without the knowledge if not explicit direction of his boss. As the fickle finger of fate starts pointing at the big Dick, I see Cheney resigning as VP, probably sometime late in 2006 or early 2007. For medical reasons, of course. (Nudge, nudge.) Whether Rove leaves or not depends purely on whether Turd Blossom decides to take one for the team and tender his resignation; Bush will never fire him.

Cheney's resignation will free up Bush to appoint his designated successor as the new VP. It won't be McCain or Giuliani; my primary bet is on Romney or Allen, with a side bet on George's brother Jeb. Yeah, Bush could be that dumb. But either Romney or Allen would be a smarter choice, all things said and done.

As to the 2006 elections, I see a Democratic sweep, big enough to regain control of the Senate and maybe big enough to take back the House, as well. When this happens, the floodgates open -- and Bush had better hunker down. We'll finally see aggressive investigations into everything that's happened in the past five years, quite possibly leading to impeachment proceedings.

Bottom line, the good times are over for the Bush boys. The final years of his second term will be rough ones, indeed.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Friday, November 04, 2005

More on Sony's CD copy protection

Those rat bastards at Sony have been taking a ton of flack this week for their malware-infected CD copy protection scheme. Seems as if that installer program that prohibits copying their CDs to iPods or ripping to a PC at anything more than 128 Kbps also installs a spyware-type program on your PC. You know, the type of program that hides its existence, is impossible to remove, and can potentially be hijacked by malicious hackers. Gotta love Sony for this likely criminal infringement of their customer's rights. Not only do they not want their customers to actually use their products, they want to invade their customers' privacy and possibly damage their computers, as well. Way to go, Sony rat bastards!

Sony, of course, remains clueless. Their sole response to this controversy was to announce a patch to the malware program to reduce the hacker hijack threat. Boy oh boy, am I happy now. What a bunch of insensitive fucks.

That said, I did stumble upon a way to successfully rip the audio files from Sony's copy protected CDs. What you have to do is insert the CD into your PC without letting the autorun program run, so that you don't install the malware program. (Difficult, but doable.) Then you access the CD as you would any data CD, and use a program called CDex to extract the audio files. CDex can rip files in either MP3 or WAV format (WAV for me, thank you), and it works just fine on the Burt Bacharach CD I recently purchased (and subsequently returned -- post CDex-ing, of course). It's too much work to get the full value out of these CDs, of course, but it's good to know there's a technological solution to this particular issue.

The rat bastards at Sony who thought up this scheme should be fired. And the consuming public should boycott Sony's CDs until this problem is resolved. This situation demands nothing less than a full recall of the suspect products, replacing them in the marketplace with non-copy protected, non-malware infected versions, and fully refunding customers' money or replacing the bad CDs with good ones. An acknowledgment of their stupidity would also be nice, as would an apology.

Oh, and how did Burt's new CD sound? Okay, but definitely not his best work. I was particularly disappointed in the pedestrian arrangements, relying too heavily on drum loops and cheap synthesizers instead of the full orchestra that Burt should be working with. And, of course, Burt is not a great singer, nor is he as talented a lyricist as his former partner, Hal David. Worth a listen, but not worth dealing with Sony's copy protection to hear.

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bad Bacharach: Sony's copy protection strikes again

I'm a Burt Bacharach fan. More than a fan. A student. I've studied his music extensively, and not only appreciate his compositions but understand them. I consider Bacharach one of the top composers of the 20th century.

This is why I was very much looking forward to Burt's new CD, At This Time, his first batch of all-new compositions in many a year. Unfortunately, the CD I received was encoded with Sony's brand spanking new copy protection scheme, which makes the disc totally unlistenable to my ears. The CD is being returned, and I don't get to hear Burt's new music. To say that I'm pissed off is an understatement.

Let me explain.

I rip all of my CDs to the hard drive on my Media Center PC, and then listen to my music digitally through an extremely high fidelity audio system in my living room. Every other CD in my collection ripped just fine, and I save the files in WMA Lossless format, which has an effective bit rate of 700 Kbps or so -- the same quality as the original files on the CD. But this Sony copy protection scheme messes with all that. First, you can't just rip the CD, you to run the little program on the CD and let it copy the files to the hard drive for you. Then, it copies the files in regular WMA format (not WMA Lossless) at a miserable 128 Kbps. Not acceptable! Maybe that's good enough for use with an iPod, but the sound quality is so poor as to be unlistenable over a quality audio system.

Why should I have to pay full price for a CD that, when played on my expensive Media Center PC-based system, offers significantly inferior sound quality? Why would any consumer put up with this bullshit? Just what are those rat bastards at Sony trying to do, anyway -- totally alienate their customers?

I'm doubly pissed off because I so wanted to listen to this album, and because Burt Bacharach albums (dating back to the legendary Casino Royale soundtrack) are usually a sonic treat -- not just great music, but extremely well-recorded music. I simply can't listen to this music presented in sub-FM quality. I'm not pissed at Burt, but rather at Sony. I vow never to buy another Sony CD again, until they reverse this policy of sonically crippling their new releases. (And I fault Amazon, to some degree, for not noting the copy protection in their item listing.)

So fuck you, Sony rat bastards. Cut the crap and give us consumers all the music we pay for -- with no restrictions!

But that's just my opinion; reasonable minds may disagree.